His fans mostly know writer M. A. Larson for the scripts he has written for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, the cult phenomenon that gave birth to the Brony movement, but soon the world may know Larson more for his debut novel, Pennyroyal Academy.
Like the Brony movement, the novel shatters our perceptions and preconceived notions of entertainment for girls. The comedy takes aim at "pink princess culture" while telling a heartfelt story about a girl who enrolls in a boot camp–like school where princesses and knights learn to fight witches and dragons. The book also explores the same ethos of friendship, acceptance, and playfulness that has made My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic a global phenomenon. Such is the buzz around the novel that prior to the book's publication, Reese Witherspoon even purchased the book's film rights.
I recently sat down with Larson to discuss his new book, race in children's entertainment, and (of course) what he thinks about the Brony movement.
VICE: How did Pennyroyal Academy come about?
M.A. Larson: I've been writing for kids' animation since I moved to LA, about eight years ago. All the advice I was getting was have your own show, so I was constantly trying to think of new ideas.
I was walking back to Cartoon Network from somewhere one day, and I was thinking about Princess Peach from Mario Kart: Oh wait. She's a princess! That's so weird. Then I was thinking about other princesses, like Cinderella. What if Peach and Cinderella lived together, like The Odd Couple? That spiraled into what if all of the princesses in the world lived in the same place, like Melrose Place.
It was called Princess Boot Camp at that point, and it was a straightforward parody of the pink princess culture set in a hardcore military-style boot camp, but I worked on it for six years after that.
Wow. How did the novel change throughout your writing process?
One of the biggest things that influenced me was a book called The Uses of Enchantment. It's from 1976, by this guy called Bruno Bettelheim, and it's a psychoanalytic look at the Grimm's fairytales. One of his major theses is how important it is that fairy tales had those dark elements—and that kids read the darker, more violent, scarier parts because it helps them develop their emotions and deal with their own anxieties. I realized that my idea, as a parody, didn't have any of that. So I aged it up, cut out the parody, and tried to create a more realistic, three-dimensional world with characters who were actually going through things.
In the last few years the world of young-adult literature and TV has gotten more diverse, but most mainstream media for teens and kids is still really white. What do you make of this?
I thought about this with Pennyroyal Academy, because the world I was going for was the actual world that Brothers Grimm wrote about. I wanted it to be a realistic medieval Germany, with dragons, witches, and fairies—and medieval Germany is pretty white. But when I was writing it, I didn't want it to look like that. I probably copped out, but I just tried not to specify [races], so whoever was reading it could put whoever they wanted in that role.
I know what you mean, but why can an audience imagine dragons in medieval Germany but not black characters?
That's a really good point. I don't know, but I do think those divisions are breaking down. Hopefully we'll open it up further too, where kids of certain ethnicities or sexual orientations will find plenty of protagonists that they can connect with, whether they're the same ethnicity or sexual orientation or not. There are so many things that we as humans have in common that we go through: the anxieties and fears, the insecurities we have to work through, the friendships. It's what My Little Pony is all about.
How did you get your start on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic?
I knew Lauren Faust, the creator of the show, because I wrote an episode of her previous show, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. With My Little Pony, I had low expectations. My impression of it was just girls sitting around brushing these toy plastic things' hair, but as soon as I read Lauren's bible [the mythology and backstory of the show], I was like, "This is not that at all." These are six distinct, discrete characters who are all really interesting.
Did the Brony phenomenon surprise you?
Totally. I'd been writing for cartoons at that point for five years, and I always thought of it as writing into the void. I would write these things, and nobody would ever watch them—and if they did, I'd never know about it. I always tried to entertain myself, but never really had any anticipation that anybody would care.
The first time I really knew about Bronies was this story meeting, when Lauren showed me a video of 30 Russian teenage boys who looked like they were at a day camp out in the forest. The video comes to two of them with guitars, and there's like ten guys singing the song "Winter Wrap Up," from season one of My Little Pony, with these thick Russian accents. I was like, "This is Russia? This is insane!"
What do you think is driving the Brony movement?
This is just my theory—and I'm sure they'll tell me if I'm wrong—but there's so much kids' animation now that's so cynical and postmodern. I can't watch most of it because it makes me insane, but this show is just so sweet and nice. I think for a lot of people that's just refreshing. If you go to the conventions, you can see that spirit of community and happiness, just joyousness that you don't see a lot in normal society. I love going to these conventions because it's so happy, and that's part of what I tried to capture in Pennyroyal Academy as well.
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